In 1966 Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) takes the daunting first steps towards her historic career. With what is perhaps a blissful ignorance or otherwise an unduly trusting nature she waltzes into a music executives office believing she is the recipient of the chance to record. Possibly such an offer was laid out at some point, but it is not in the nature of the music business to throw bones to struggling artists and as such, daughter Matilda in tow, Helen leaves the office jobless and alone in New York.
She goes through many more highs and lows before writing the unofficial anthem of the woman’s liberation movement, I Am Woman, after which the film takes its name. The most important of those highs is her meeting of the man who gets her where she needs to be to shine, her second husband, Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). The film is just as much his at it is Helen’s and the audacious and charismatic Wald soaks up every minute of the limelight. They meet when he gatecrashes her birthday party and soon enough after they are on their way to California where he dreams of representing movie stars and she dreams of making an album. It is here in the Golden State, far removed from the squalor she found herself performing for in New York, that Helen Reddy truly becomes a star.
As she elevates to stardom, it gets more and more difficult not to wish this film had come out maybe three years earlier. Before Bohemian Rhapsody had hampered the music biopic so carelessly and before Rocket Man had shown us how to do it properly. In those days I Am Woman would soar as a perfectly reasonable and empowering film, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, watching this in 2020 only highlights the worst tendencies of biographical film making, particularly of musicians. These films feel the need to get by on haphazard normalcy as if showing everything to be stock standard drama is enough to get by. When directors do this, they often include set pieces to add some vigour and give a reason to stay, and this is no different.
The performance of the titular song is Unjoo Moon’s selected set-piece and when it comes around the film takes on an entirely different aura for a few moments. So powerful and infectious is Reddy’s song that not only does it overcome an unfortunately obvious lip sync, but it also becomes indelible. Cobham-Harvey looks every bit of the part has she mimics the performance and the way it is shot, both the first and second and second performances, is impeccable.
In fact, throughout the entire film, only one thing remains steadfast, the fantastic work of Dion Beebe, the cinematographer. So brilliant and modern is his work that it almost becomes incongruous to the period and otherwise general straightforwardness of the film. The strength of last years fantastic Judy was that it was a deeply personal film, and despite the attempts for this to be the same it simply isn’t. One moment there will be a spectacular use of Steadicam that promises a deeper glimpse into this impressive figure only to be followed by a scene taken straight from Walk the Line, it’s dreadfully uneven and reeks of having already been done.
The story remains interesting enough, the familiarity of it can’t be helped in this aspect because if this is what happened, then this is what happened, or is at least some form of it. The performances too are praiseworthy. Her work here could well be Cobham-Harvey’s step into fame should the right people see it and Peters has begun his first steps out of his beloved Quicksilver’s shadow. They will both go on to bigger and better things, hopefully in the near future.
As time passes through the slightly overlong 116-minute runtime, the film never delves into dire failure, nor does it even come close, it is more that it makes so little of an impact. Eventually the song I Am Woman becomes a crutch for its namesake film and attempts to carry it upon its back. Every moment that isn’t performance just plays it too safe and it compounds into the realisation that there is a great film to be made here, this just isn’t it.
I Am Woman is heartfelt and well-meaning in its approach. However, it is far too uncomplicated and direct to inspire any of the feelings Helen Reddy’s powerful music does and instead leaves you begging for any sign of risk or vulnerability.
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